They stood next to us: Mother (capris and Crocs), son and daughter (bored expressions) and father (Polo T-shirt and fanny pack), red-faced and sweating profusely as only the British can when confronted with the mid-morning sun and temperatures in the high 20s.
Music and art: al fresco music at the Barri Gotic
We were outside one of Barcelona’s most famous buildings, the La Sagrada Familia church, confronted with Gaudi’s near-nightmarish interpretation of the Nativity. While I gawked at the seemingly melting façade, aforementioned father opened a brand new guidebook and began to read aloud from it in his best Sermon on the Mount voice. His wife looked like she needed her gin and tonic, while the kids were no doubt in Teletubbyland. They were the perfect example of how not to do a weekend away.
Past experiences of walking down Via Sacra—the main street of ancient Rome—nose buried in a map and hopes of bumping into Russell “Gladiator” Crowe in my heart have taught me this: The best way to enjoy a new city is sans guidebook, sans schedule and sans expectations. I put my theory to test in Barcelona .
Our hotel was at one end of the Passeig de Gràcia. Home to the likes of Gucci and Hermes, it is a graceful tree-lined avenue that segues effortlessly into the commercial buzz of Plaça Catalunya and La Rambla, culminating at the seafront where Columbus points across the expansive Mediterranean at what was intended to be the Americas but turned out to be North Africa. With a few detours thrown in, it is a walk that captures the essence of Barcelona.
Keeping in mind the reserved grandeur of its famed Gothic architecture, it is hard to believe that Barcelona was also the incubator for Modernisme. Catalan Modernisme (not to be confused with modernism) was a turn-of-the-20th-century movement against bourgeois values that hoped to give individualistic Catalan art its rightful place in European culture.
Love Antonio Gaudi, Modernisme’s most famous proponent, or hate him, you really can’t ignore him in Barcelona. The bauble-topped spires of his La Sagrada Familia are visible from almost every rooftop in the city, the Phantom of the Opera mask-like balconies of the Manzana de la Discordia (manzana is a pun, implying both “block of houses” and “apple”, thus, “Apple of Discord”) add a fairy tale touch to the elegant Passeig de Gràcia.
Gaudi’s most talked-about creation is perhaps the Temple Expiatori de La Sagrada Familia (the Expiatory Temple of the Sacred Family), and not only because it is the world’s longest work-in-progress: The foundation stone was placed in 1882 and in 2007, the construction cranes and hard hats still haven’t been cleared off the site. For what was intended as an exercise in atonement, La Sagrada Familia seems to have been more an exercise in self-indulgence.
Not that I am complaining: I loved the severe, Spartan lines of the passion façade on one side, and the Nativity façade on the other, the latter appearing like a giant melting waxwork to me, if not to the bored British family.
But my favourite Gaudi building was Casa Milà. With its undulating wave-like exterior, balconies fashioned to look like seaweed and rooftop chimneys that rose like giant mutant chess rooks, it is an apartment block like no other.
A few minutes walk from Casa Milà is the Plaça Catalunya, which the hotel bellhop had promised was just like London’s Leicester Square or New Delhi’s Greater Kailash. He wasn’t wrong. The sale-crazed crowds at Zara and El Cortes Inglés (Spain’s most famous shopping mall chain) made us hurry onwards, only to be met by the seething mob that descends on La Rambla every day. The narrow pavements were besieged by mime artists jostling for space with tacky postcard stands and souvenir shops and are best avoided unless there is a Gaudi-esque ashtray you simply have to have.
We took a sudden left turn and found ourselves in one of the many side streets that constitute the Barri Gothic or Gothic Quarter. Characterized by ribbed vaults, soaring columns, sharply pointed spires, flying buttresses and sculptural details such as gargoyles, Gothic architecture is alive and well in the narrow, poky streets of the Quarter, where buildings from the 13th to 15th centuries stand proud, if somewhat dishevelled.
It is easy to get lost in the maze-like streets, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Small gullies suddenly open out into spacious squares, and we walked right into a weekend market where vendors were selling large legs of jamón serrano (Spanish ham), honey, wooden bowls, olives and miniature cooking utensils that reminded me of the choppu set I used to play with as a child.
Old couples sat about on benches, the women clucking disapprovingly (or out of jealousy perhaps) at the scantily clad girls gathering about a makeshift stage set up for an impromptu music concert. It was to be a common feature in our wanderings around Barcelona. Almost every other square would have a lone Baroque guitarist or a Stomp-like ragamuffin band filling the air with music.
The Barri Gothic is full of surprises. There are some very curious shops, one was selling nothing but crucifixes in varying shapes, sizes and styles (I wonder if Madonna was a customer in her pre-kabala days). Wandering around Plaça Nova, we caught sight of a charming line drawing of the Nativity. Pleasure at the happenstance discovery multiplied when we learnt the artist was Picasso.
At the trendy Plaça de Santa Maria, while we lunched outside on tapas, a woman walked into our midst, whipped off her coat to reveal a bustier and diaphanous pants and proceeded to belly-dance to the rhythmic clapping of diners. Satiated on food and music and the dizzying afternoon heat, the high-vaulted, darkened interiors of the Cathedral de la Seu offered succour to two sinners. Our crime: Gluttony.
We finally emerged from the Barri Gothic near the sea. Packed during the day, the Barceloneta is less crowded in the evenings and is the perfect place for dinner. There are plenty of restaurants along the seafront where you can dip in to sumptuous seafood paellas, with your toes squiggling about in the sand. After walking past dozens of restaurants, we finally decided on Bestial. Truth be told, it was the name that clinched it. That, and Frank Gehry’s bronze metallic fish sculpture that stands overhead, poised as if to take a graceful leap into the Mediterranean. Staring up at the American architect-artist’s post-structuralist creation, it was hard to believe that a few hours earlier, we had been mesmerized by Gaudi and Gothic gargoyles.
That is what makes Barcelona so bewitching: its ability to inspire and nurture such varied expressions not just in architecture but in music, style and food. And if culture doesn’t do it for you, then the Sangria sure as hell will.
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How to go:
Flights: Fly from Mumbai or New Delhi to Barcelona with a single stopover on Air France, Alitalia, British Airways, KLM or SwissAir. Round-trip economy class fares range from Rs33,000 to Rs47,000 (ex-Mumbai), and Rs33,000 to Rs59,000 (ex-Delhi).
You will need a Schengen visa to travel to Spain. Any EU member country can issue one for €60 (approx. Rs3,300).
Where to stay:
We stayed at Hotel Omm (www.hotelomm.es, +34 934454000) on the Diagonal, home to Barcelona’s uber-chic shopping district L’Eixample. Winner of the Condé Nast Johansens best designed and innovative hotel in Europe, the hotel has a luxury spa, a Michelin-starred restaurant, Moo, and a lovely rooftop pool. From the citrus-coloured Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs in the lobby to the concealed wall-mounted plasma televisions in each room, the hotel is a study in understated luxury. Rooms start at €320 per night.
Le Meridien (www.lemeridien- barcelona.com, +34 933186200) is one of the few oases of calm on the otherwise frenetic La Rambla. Deluxe rooms start at euro 325 per night.
The Duquesa de Cardona Hotel (www.hduquesadecardona.com, +34 93 268 9090) is a 16th century residence that has been lovingly converted into a boutique hotel with lovely views of the Montjuic Mountain and the Marina. Rooms begin at €250 a night.
Where to eat:
Try to start the day with a typical Catalan breakfast of xocolata and xurros or chocolate and strips of deep fried bread called churros. Top it off with a glass of Horchata, a favoured energy giving drink made with tigernuts, water and sugar.
Bestial for Italian food and great views. Carrer de Ramon Trias Fargas 30, 08005. De Tapa Madre for tapas. Carrer de Mallorca 301, Bruc’s corner 08037 (www.detapamadre.com).
Where to shop:
Head to high street heavyweight Zara for all that is au courant. The flagship store on Catalunya stocks the chain’s entire range. 1748 in Placeta de Montcada is a small charming shop that sells handmade painted ceramics. L’Eixample for those in need of a couture fix—home to Hermes, Gucci and Loewe.
What to do:
If you are in Barcelona on a longish stay, head to the mountains of Montserrat for the day. Avoid the hour-long queues to see the famed black Madonna, and take a scenic trek instead. The Comino de la Santa Cova leads to a tiny church tucked into the side of the mountains.